Dr. Jerome H. Holland, 6th president: Leadership a turning point for DSC

Dr. Jerome H. Holland
Tenure: 1953-1960

Among those familiar with the 122-year history of Delaware State University, Dr. Jerome H. Holland is commonly known to be the most pivotal president in the institution’s history.

That historical characterization is substantiated by his 1953-1960 tenure at then-Delaware State College, in which under his leadership the College was pulled from the brink of institutional extinction and onto firm footing as an accredited HBCU.

While clearly deserving of the accolades for how his leadership reversed the fortunes of Delaware State College toward a positive direction of continuous growth and increasing prosperity, a newly published book is shedding new
light on how Holland and DSC benefited from the desegregation battles of the 1950s.

Born Jan. 9, 1916, in Auburn, N.Y., Holland was the first African-American to play football for Cornell University in 1939. He went on to be a two-time All-American end. At Cornell, he earned a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in Sociology, and later he received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1950. Holland was working as a social research consultant for the Pew Memorial Foundation in Philadelphia when he was approached about the DSU president’s post by then-newly elected Gov. J. Caleb Boggs.

Clearly Holland merits a lot of credit for simply agreeing to become president of DSC in 1953 and squarely confronting the challenges facing the institution headlong. The College had lost its accreditation in 1949 — after having possessed it only five years — which resulted in dwindling enrollment and calls from many for its permanent closure. Nevertheless, Holland was undaunted by the tall challenges facing the institution.

Court case

After decades of receiving woefully less-than-adequate financial support from the state, DSC had become the stark poster child for why separate but equal segregation was in fact abjectly unequal, especially to the detriment of minorities, their institutions and public accommodations. The stage where the College’s abundant shortcomings were on widespread display was the Delaware Court of Chancery, the site of a nationally precedent-setting 1950 civil case challenging the segregation of the University of Delaware.

After the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools’ revocation in 1949 of DSC’s initial accreditation, 10 African-American students tried to obtain applications to enroll at the University of Delaware, but were refused. This resulted in a legal showdown in the Delaware Court of Chancery in which the students — represented by Delaware legal legend Louis L. Redding and NAACP attorney Jack Greenberg — were victorious.

In making their effective case for the 10 plaintiffs, Redding and Greenberg used comparisons between DSC and the University of Delaware to drive home the stark inadequacies of Delaware’s only historically black college. They could be found in virtually every area, including infrastructure, academic offerings, financial resources, salaries and student services.

The state’s insufficient financial support of DSC had been a shameful constant throughout the College’s then-60 year history and was a major factor in its loss of accreditation. The vast differences in higher education quality and resources between DSC and UD led to the court’s ruling that ultimately unlocked the segregated doors of the University of Delaware and became a part of the growing body of evidence that would eventually dismantle the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine where educational systems were concerned.

The court victory notwithstanding, a convergence between the opponents of desegregation in higher education and the proponents for the continuation of DSC combined with the arrival of Holland in 1953 to result in the survival of DSC.

A 1951 state task force recommended that DSC be converted to a junior college and merged with the University of Delaware, which the northern school opposed. Despite the Chancery Court ruling, many in the state government were opposed to desegregation.

Dr. Brett Gadsden, author of the 2013 book Between North and South — Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism, notes as it became clear that the legal grounds for segregation in schools was fast beginning to crumble, Delaware officials began to slow desegregation by providing long overdue financial resources to DSC as well as to other black public schools throughout the state.

“White officials mobilized in such a manner, not in response to the efforts of black activists committed to vitalizing historically black institutions; they moved only after it became apparent that more and more blacks looked to white schools as the means to escape the deprivations endemic to black schools and only after school desegregation proponents began winning in the courts,” Gadsden said in the book’s introduction. “The state then devoted greater resources to Delaware State College, enriching educational opportunities at this historically black institution.”

Holland’s work

Thus was the good timing when Holland assumed the DSC presidency in 1953. However, the financial resources of the state didn’t simply drop in his lap. Against the parallel backdrop of the UD desegregation ruling and the still-strong calls for the College to be closed, Holland still had to make a case for the continued existence of the College as a four-year institution.

Holland submitted a 1954 report to then-Gov. Boggs which charted the history of DSU, the state’s track record of inadequate funding of the College, as well as how the state could atone for its longtime neglect.
Simply put, Holland stated that if the state planned to leave its low levels of financial support of DSC unchanged while at the same time continuing the debate as to whether the HBCU should remain open, then without a doubt DSC should be closed. However, Holland also forcefully stated that if the state decided it would change its attitude toward DSU for the better, there were many needs on campus that should be addressed, which he went on to list categorically in the report.

“He made a compelling case concerning DSC’s continued importance to serve black students in Delaware and steered the institution through a very stormy period,” Gadsden said in a recent phone interview.
While noting the importance of DSC’s continuation to African-Americans, he also took a visionary view of the institution’s future diversity potential.

“There is no reason why Delaware State cannot serve all citizens; they pay for it,” Holland said in a 1953 interview with the Delaware State News. “We will do everything possible to secure an accredited standing, and the guiding philosophy will be for a state education institution.”

Within a matter of a few years, DSC received $2.5 million in state funding that resulted in the construction of three new buildings (Memorial Hall, Conwell Hall and Grossley Hall) and the renovation of six other buildings. That compared positively to the period of 1931-1953 in which state funding for major construction only took place once — a major capital improvement allocation in 1949 for the construction of Tubman Hall a few years later.
In addition, the state funding for the DSC operating budget increased from $307,000 in 1953-54 to $400,000 in 1959.

While it is clear that the increase in funding had a strongly sustaining effect on DSC, it is also clear that Holland’s leadership was indispensable. To receive the funding that DSU obtained involved countless meetings and negotiations between the DSC president, legislators and the state governor’s office. To gain their confidence, the College had to show appreciable improvement, which it did throughout Holland’s tenure.

The enrollment — which was only 167 students in 1953 — more than doubled within the next six years. Significant improvements were made to the College’s academic structure and student services. Holland was also able to broker legislation with the state politicians that changed the composition of the College’s Board of Trustees, expanding it from six to 11 members — with for the first time five members being appointed by the board while six continued to be appointed by the governor, reducing the impact of politics on board selections.

Most importantly to the University’s survival, it was under Holland’s strong leadership that Middle States reaccredited DSC in 1957.

“The legal victories of Louis Redding (in Parker vs. University of Delaware and Brown vs. Board of Education) were instrumental in opening the door of segregated institutions and in an unintended consequence, also in spurring public investments in previously neglected black institutions such as Delaware State College,” Gadsden said. “To his credit, Dr. Holland took advantage of that opportunity and DSC was able to rise as a modern, better resourced college as a result.”

Holland’s transformational work as DSC president made him extremely marketable. In 1960, Hampton Institute (later University) was able to lure him away from DSC to assume that presidency until 1970. Like his time at DSC, his tenure at Hampton also reflected tremendous growth at that institution.

He would go on to write a number of economic and sociological studies of African-Americans, serve as ambassador of Sweden, chairman of the American Red Cross and sit as a board member of nine major U.S. companies, as well as becoming the first African-American to serve on the board of the U.S. Stock Exchange. Holland was also elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1965.

Known throughout his life from his Cornell years by his nickname “Brud,” Holland passed away in 1985 in New
York City.

-- Story by Carlos Holmes